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Government As Mother of the Internet

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During a presidential campaign rife with tit-for-tat over whether successful small businesses owe any thanks to government, a related and revealing debate is unfolding in the opinion pages of The Wall Street Journal.

Last week, columnist L. Gordon Crovitz wrote a widely commented-on essay challenging the common claim that government research—in the form of the Advanced Research Projects Agency in the early 1970s—created what would become the Internet. He blasted President Obama for implying that government alone created the digital phenomenon, pointing out that government didn’t help build the Internet to create commercial opportunities and that companies that succeed on the Internet do not do so because of government.

In an update Monday, Crovitz wrote, “supporters of big government don’t want to hear about the private-sector contributions to the Internet, but today the Internet is defined by individuals using it for their own purposes,” a “boom” that, he says, “began in the mid-1990s when the government shut down its remaining role, leaving the Internet to the power of the people.”

Crovitz’s version was challenged in a letter also published by the Journal on Monday written by two of the acknowledged “fathers” of the Internet: Vincent Cerf, co-inventor of the TCP/IP protocols, and Stephen Wolff, director of the NSFnet that became the primary inter-network for higher education.

They tell a more complex tale of progress made via “many different government contracts,” adding that many private-sector corporations vigorously resisted some of the early protocols that became the industry standard. “The story of the Internet,” they write, “reveals a remarkable story of how government, academia and the private sector worked together over several decades to create one of the most revolutionary technologies ever invented and deployed on a large scale.”

Perhaps we need an online adjudicator to assign precise credit. Anyone have an email address for Al Gore?

Charlie Clark joined Government Executive in the fall of 2009. He has been on staff at The Washington Post, Congressional Quarterly, National Journal, Time-Life Books, Tax Analysts, the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, and the National Center on Education and the Economy. He has written or edited online news, daily news stories, long features, wire copy, magazines, books and organizational media strategies.

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